Photo by Phil Rispin
On the Bighorn, Photo by Phil Rispin (see note below)

Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, Fly Fisher & Photographer

The first fly rod I ever saw belonged to my father. It was a long telescoping metal rod that had a huge amount of flex to it and by today’s standards weighed a ton. Attached to that rod was a spring loaded reel that would reel in line that had been pulled out simply by touching a lever that stuck out from the reel. The fly line itself was a rusty orange color. I have no idea whether it was a floating line, sinking line, shooting head or double taper, I had no knowledge of such things. I just remember wishing that I had a rod just like Dad.

That rod lived in my parent’s bedroom closet along with Dad’s old Remington pump shotgun. Depending upon the season either one or the other would come out of the closet to be used. While I remember Dad shooting many birds with his shotgun using me, as the designated retriever, (we had a rough time training our various dogs) I haven’t got a single memory of him ever casting that fly rod for a fish or for that matter any memory of seeing my Dad ever catch a fish.

Dad did buy us rods. I remember being both excited about the new rod and at the same time a little discouraged that the rod he got me was not like his own. He had bought me a long brown spinning rod with a simple spinning reel filled with line that changed color every yard or two alternating between green and brown.  It was with this rod that I began “fly” fishing using it right into my University years eventually equipping it with a cheap fly reel and using Dad’s old rusty orange fly line without backing and tying on cheap mono-filament as leader material.

Fishing trips with Dad were rarely about catching fish. They were a chance to get out with the other men in his circle of friends, all combat veterans of the Second World War. The sons were brought along as pretense I am sure to keep the wives happy that “Dad” was doing his fatherly duty. Sometimes the fishing trips were a way to provide a family vacation for my four cousins whose father had died when they were very young. A family trip would often mean heading to a place called Cadomin (Cadomin is a contraction of “Canadian Dominion Mines” that became the name of the town) in the Canadian Rockies southwest of Edson, Alberta. It was a ghost town that had been active in the days when coal was a major supplier of heat and power. When other cheaper and cleaner methods of producing electricity and heating homes had come along in the way of natural gas or hydroelectric power the coal mines closed down and towns like Cadomin began to die. There were a number of them along the east slopes of the Canadian Rockies. The homes that were left behind were sometimes purchased for a song by people who wanted access to the excellent fishing and hunting in those areas and my father knew a person who owned one of the “cabins” in Cadomin.

In this cabin there was an old cast iron wood stove, the sole means of heat There was outdoor plumbing of some unknown vintage and running water so long as you were willing to run up the hill behind the cabin to collect it from a spring which tumbled out of a pipe in the ground. The place was infested by mice. My mother and my aunt spent the better part of their “vacation” cleaning the cabin of mouse droppings and cooking meals on the wood stove.

Dad wasn’t by inclination a teacher or a mentor. He was instead a supervisor and worrier. The river that we fished for Rocky Mountain Whitefish ran cold and swift within a stones throw of the cabin. The river was one of those mountain rivers lined with limestone boulders ranging from pebbles to house size. The water sometimes had glacial sediment in it giving it a cold blue color but most often it looked silvery gray and frigid. There was supposed to be a substantial population of Rocky Mountain Whitefish in this river. Dad ran herd on my cousins, my brother, my sister and I during the entire trip very concerned that we might fall in and drown. The main reason that I never saw Dad actually using his fly rod was he was too busy watching us.

Dad would get us all lined up with our spinning rods on the edge of the river, a short length of monofilament on the end of that colored line and a Royal Coachman tied to that. Some split shot would be attached to the line a foot or so above the fly. The fly would then be equipped with either a salmon egg or a live maggot and we were in business.

The only presentation method that I ever learned from Dad was his own version of upstream delivery allowing the fly to drift down stream to a point where the line checked any further travel. The amount of line out at any one time was not much longer than the length of the rod. Aside from the fact that we stood over our potential prey in full view, the behavior of the wet fly broadcast to the fish far and wide that there were fisherkids in the area.

My family was not well off in a financial sense. Sporting goods like fly rods, reels, flies etc. were bought on sale and in small quantities. This meant that for a week’s fishing trip every fly had to be well taken care of and whenever possible retrieved from any and all snags and tangles. On one occasion I remember actually seeing fish caught by a couple of fishermen 100 yards downstream of us. They were doing very well, filling what looked like a medium size burlap bag with fish. I pondered why we weren’t catching any fish as my father waded waist deep in the cold water in front of me unsnagging first one kid’s hook and then another. He even seemed a little agitated when from between chattering teeth he told my mother about the wonderful success of the other guys downstream from us and their gunny sack full of fish.

Needless to say that although I spent what felt like days under Dad’s supervision I began to wonder if Rocky Mountain Whitefish or indeed any fish were myths. I knew from thumbing through magazines like “Outdoor Life” and “Argus” that we weren’t really fly fishing in the true sense of the word but I didn’t know enough to question or change tactics on my own. It never occurred to me that perhaps I could read the articles and learn something.

NOTE: You can purchase the photo above, On the Bighorn, at https://phil-rispin.pixels.com/featured/on-the-bighorn-phil-rispin.html.

4 Comments

  1. Phil, your article for me adds up to a wistful memory of soft summer afternoons and grassy banks and naive optimism and Dads and kids. Especially familiar was your description of your early gear, and how every hook had a bit of bait on it, and how every sliver of tackle–be it a hook or an old tooth-crushed split shot–had to be retrieved, from bushes and trees and snags on the bottom. And how oblivious we all could be about how what we were doing was sure to unnerve the fish.

    It all reminds me of my own past. Great tale…liked it a lot.

    Your shot of the Bighorn is nice too.

    – Mike

  2. TY, Phil. Reminds me of my first fishing with a metal casting rod. 68 yrs ago, I save enough to buy a glass 8′ fly rod. To match Dad’s Mitchell spring loaded fly reel, I bought a spring loaded Shakespeare which I still have and passed on to one grandson. Dad and I would use the fly eqp and load a #6 aberdeen hook to 6′ leader. Then from a boat we would paddle the shore of a lake and gently flycast the worm loaded hook to the shallow areas and catch bream. Seems we did this all year but I know it was only in the spring. Some days 70 or so fish would land in the freezer.
    As you, I followed Dad and two bird dogs on quail hunts where I also retrieved a bird if he was able to get more than 2 birds on the flush.
    Thank you again. You have had me retrieve many memorable weekends with my Dad. I have been fortunate to pass some of these experiences with my sons and grandsons.
    Perhaps the Lord will keep me here a while longer as hopefully a good mentor to my grandkids..girls and boys.
    Bruce

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